The Reluctant Irishman: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Me

This Saint Patrick's Day, on a holiday when everybody becomes Irish without worrying about the burdens, joys, and costs of being Irish in history, let's remember America's great Irish writer, Scott Fitzgerald.
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Every Saint Patrick's Day my mother would wake us with put-on cheer, decked out in one of those drugstore-quality plastic green hats and a kelly green sweater. In her best Irish English, drawling her o's and r's, she would call out, "Top o' the morning to ya!", only to be greeted by silence, groans, or outright rebellion.

The rest of the morning featured breakfast-table negotiations about the wearing of the green. The pickings? Sweaters, shirts, shamrock ribbons, and "Kiss me I'm Irish" stickers, the last of these seeming a rather foolhardy choice to wear to my pugilistic, all-boys Catholic high school. I'm convinced she chose the most garish shades of green in order to make Saint Patty's Day a crucible -- the declaration "I'm proud to be Irish" to be translated as "I love my mother." But her heavy sell succeeded in making me only reluctantly Irish. As far as I could discern, there was no history behind any of it. If all that remained of my Irish heritage were a few tired clichés -- "Top o' the Morning" entered the American pop lexicon through a late 1940s Hollywood movie by that title -- there wasn't much choice but to renounce your mother and save face with your peers.

It wasn't until I was in high school, reading James Joyce's Dubliners in a requisite English class, that I began to embrace the melancholy joys of being Irish. Joyce's spare, rigorous, sorrowful yet idealistic stories instilled the romance of Ireland in me. In tales of houses haunted by the memory of dead priests, in reminisces about a great nineteenth-century leader of Irish parliamentary nationalism, Joyce brought to life a people yearning for self-determination while proudly believing themselves unconquerable, despite a long history of brutal British rule that proved otherwise.

Around the time I discovered Joyce, I also began reading the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott became (and remains) one of my favorites, someone whose story I went on to explore in my new novel, Beautiful Fools. And while in my boy's mind, Joyce was as Irish as they come -- making me wish to be enrolled in the ranks of beleaguered Irish fighting for their independence -- it hardly occurred to me to read Fitzgerald as a standard bearer for the American Irish.

Certainly, I'm not alone in the failure to think of Scott Fitzgerald as Irish Catholic. To this day he's rarely read, or taught, as an Irish writer. Mythically wrapped in the glamor of the Jazz Age, he's remembered as a prophet of an era in which Americans, though disillusioned by world war, were basking in their newfound prominence as a nation and the unlimited possibilities of their freedom. In his glorious debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and in countless Saturday Evening Post stories from "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" to "The Bridal Party," Fitzgerald urged a new generation to cast off the past while glorying in exuberant and youthful self-absorption.

An overnight success, he wrote himself into American myth as anything but a proper Papist. As someone from the Irish upper middle class, Fitzgerald was afforded access to the world of the Protestant rich. At Princeton University he acquired the dreams, skills, and aspirations of the social climber who was granted a seat at the table - albeit one always, at least in his mind's eye, precariously close to the door. Indeed, if Scott was considered a Catholic at all, he was considered one who had abandoned both his faith and his Irish foundation shortly after college. But is this accurate? Or is he the great Irish American writer who couldn't get out of the way of his own Catholicism, even if he wanted to?

Scott's Irish father hailed from a dignified Maryland family, Scott himself a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner." His father proved a failure in business, thereafter having to rely on money from his wife's family, the McQuillans, people who'd come (as Scott self-deprecatingly recalled) from Irish potato famine stock. His mother's father started as a humble grocer, and on his wits and work ethic built a respectable and sizeable business in St. Paul, Minnesota. His Irish mother doted nervously on the young Scott, but he lamented her attentions and for the rest of his life thought of her as somewhat gauche, referring to her here and there as an "old peasant." Always slightly embarrassed by his family's origins, by where their money came from but also by the fact that there was never quite enough of it, he riffed in his own fiction on Horatio Alger's famous rags-to-riches formula, but with a tragic twist. Heroes who make their fortunes in the crass world of American commerce, strivers such as his maternal grandfather or Scott himself, often come too late to the party. Gatsby's ambition might prove admirable -- he's "better," as Nick Caraway says, "than the whole damn bunch put together" -- but he's still left holding the dream, and not the girl.

Much of the romance in Fitzgerald -- "romance" in its original sense focuses on the stories of valiant losers as opposed to history's winners -- derives from his Irish sensibility. He was drawn to stories of the American South (in high school he penned a Civil War drama); and he once claimed that he enrolled at Princeton because in the annual rivalry football game "Yale always seemed to nose them out in the last quarter" -- the Yale men seeming brawny and brutal, the Princetonians by contrast "slender and keen and romantic."

Scott's first real intellectual mentor at his Catholic prep school had been a priest named Father Fay. A worldly, erudite Irishman, Father Fay loved fine foods, wrote poetry, and seemed altogether romantic in his aesthetics. He introduced his young protégé to the Irish writer Shane Leslie, who hailed from a wealthy landowning Anglo-Irish family but had converted while at Cambridge to Catholicism and the cause of Irish Home Rule. Leslie and Father Fay waxed eloquent on belles-lettres and Catholicism, holding considerable sway over the young Scott's imagination even after he was ensconced at Princeton. Later in life Fitzgerald praised those two mentors for casting a "romantic glamour" on the "dreary ritual of Catholicism." Leslie also provided a more practical service, introducing Scott to the folks at Scribner's, his eventual publisher, asking them to weigh Scott's manuscript in light of the possibility that the young author's anticipated death in the battlefields of Europe (the year was 1918 and Scott, in the army, awaited assignment overseas) might well render him a second Rupert Brooke, the famous British poet-martyr of the Great War.

Scott's Irish Catholicism creeps into his fiction in too many places to list. Perhaps the most intriguing example is the wonderful 1924 story "Absolution," formidable in its own right, but all the more so because the author once admitted he'd originally intended it as a prologue for The Great Gatsby. As the story of a frightened young boy who goes to confession fearing for his soul because he's been telling lies just before receiving communion and then encounters a dreamy, distracted priest who tells him not to worry about sin and to learn to appreciate the beauty of the world, "Absolution" remembers the romantic influence, in almost ghostly form, of Father Fay. But how much of that lying young protagonist, Rudolph Miller, survives in one of 20th century American literature's most mysterious heroes?

Imagine an Irish Catholic Gatsby. What would that do to American literary history? What would it do for Irish American literary history? Fitzgerald was almost certainly right not to include this backstory in the deservedly celebrated novel, though literary luminaries from H.L. Mencken to Edith Wharton complained about the thinness of Gatsby's character after the novel's publication. What we get instead is a Gatsby almost without history. A hero who, by his own devices, becomes more legend than ordinary person. Someone who freely invents his past in order to participate in the promises of American self-invention. When Nick Carraway meets the father of James Gatz (Gatsby's birth name) at the end of the novel, we realize just how ruthlessly Gatsby has discarded the pieces of his past self he found unusable; and one can't help but reflect on Scott Fitzgerald's own restless pursuit of American myth, the pieces of himself he didn't quite know how to use.

So this Saint Patrick's Day, on a holiday when everybody becomes Irish without worrying about the burdens, joys, and costs of being Irish in history, let's remember America's great Irish writer, Scott Fitzgerald, and also the mother he sometimes called, with only grudging generosity, a shabby grand dame. At his mother's death, he regretted those habits of ingratitude, writing to inform his sister that he and his mother hadn't shared "anything in common except a relentless stubborn quality," but that nevertheless he couldn't discard any of her things because, oddly, he appreciated the way "she clung to the end to all things that would remind her of moments of snatched happiness." Scott found himself indulging similar habits in the late 1930s; and no American writer (besides maybe Faulkner) did more to immortalize the bravery of those who are valiant even in defeat. Certainly, I owe a fair portion of my own admiration for the noble losers and beautiful fools in life to Fitzgerald, Joyce, and the memory of Irish ancestors whose dreams somehow survived the tough knocks of history. And some day soon (it's Saint Patrick's Day, after all) the Irish and the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world are bound to win.

R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, to be published next month.

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